SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- For five months, Bill Mannering went to work every day and pretended he was a 13-year-old boy.
Spending four to six hours a day on the Internet, the Sacramento County sheriff's detective set himself up to be approached by a man seeking sex with children. The two talked by computer over three weeks about sex, and then the man asked the boy to meet him.
"He basically seduced my persona," Mannering said. "He arranged for the whole thing."
But when the man arrived at a Sacramento mall for the meeting on Aug. 14, he encountered a 23-year-old female deputy dressed like a boy and was arrested.
Mannering is part of a growing field of law enforcement officers scanning the Internet for crimes against children.
"The computer has this aura of anonymity," said Randy Aden, supervisory agent of the FBI in Los Angeles. "When you add adolescent children just now discovering their sexuality, exercising their independence ... it's a powder keg of a problem."
The FBI launched Operation Innocent Images in 1995 to investigate the growing number of cases of Internet-related child exploitation, said Angela Bell, an FBI spokeswoman in Washington.
"In 1996, we opened 113 cases. In 1998, we had 698 cases. In 1999, we opened 1,497 cases," Bell said. FBI agents have made 515 arrests and won 439 convictions since Operation Innocent started, she said.
The FBI budgeted $10 million, including money to train local police officers and establish regional task forces, Bell said.
About 100 FBI agents work full time on Internet child exploitation cases, and the Innocent Images budget pays the salaries of about 50 officers from local law enforcement agencies, she said.
That includes Mannering's salary for his work on the Sacramento Regional High Tech Crime Task Force, one of three in California that investigate child crimes on the Internet.
The joint task forces consist of local, state and federal agencies and are financed by grants from those three sources and donations.
Task force officers go into Internet chat rooms frequented by children, look for child pornography on the Web and respond to parent complaints.
But contact like that, day in and day out, can harm the officers, Sacramento sheriff's Capt. Jan Hoganson said.
"It's an incredibly dark side of our society. Most people can deal with, maybe not understand, but deal with people who rob banks and steal property," Aden said. "But for most people, the thought of seeking out and manipulating children into sexual situations is beyond what they can deal with."
FBI agents take a psychological exam when they start any assignment that involves crimes against children and are evaluated every six months to determine if the job is affecting them, said Aden, who supervises the Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement team, a joint task force covering seven Southern California counties.
Mannering and Aden said they couldn't go into detail about how the FBI investigates.
But Aden explained: "We do go to great lengths to make sure we're not the instigator, that the individual targets us and that it is clearly his intent or her intent to seek a child out for sex."
Suspects are given every opportunity to back out but few do, he said.
"Unfortunately, these individuals are so focused, even to the point that they know this could be a law enforcement sting, yet they still follow through on it," Aden said.
The Internet task forces aren't a threat to privacy on the Internet as long as they focus their online undercover operations as they would any "off-line" investigation, said James X. Dempsey, senior staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.
"What you say in a chat room isn't privacy protected. It's like a bar or any other public place where you meet strangers," Dempsey said.
The man arrested in August in Mannering's case, Silicon Valley computer executive William Michael Bowles, is now serving six months in jail after pleading guilty to attempting a lewd act with a child and possessing child pornography.
In a case that got more attention, a child pornography conviction against a former Disney Internet executive was dismissed in January. A federal judge who said jurors may have relied on a law that was ruled unconstitutional the day after his conviction.
Prosecutors said they plan to retry the case against Patrick J. Naughton of Seattle, a former executive with the Disney Go Network.
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